The Widows church of Christ

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Reprinted from the December 2015 issue of Gospel Advocate Magazine.

When I was a younger preacher looking for opportunities to preach and teach, I helped a congregation which was, to my surprise, exclusively comprised of widows. The “Widows church of Christ” (as I shall call them) taught me a great deal about fidelity to God’s Word in the face of a temptation to do otherwise.

It had never crossed my mind that I would stumble upon an all woman congregation. My assumption that there would always be mix-gender congregations was completely shattered. I’m glad.

My first reaction, I must admit, was arrogant. “Poor brethren, you have no leaders.” I had forgotten that still they had the Lord, the Apostolic Word. They had different talents and skills to be used on behalf of the Lord (1 Cor 12; Rom 12). They still gathered in His name, communed at the table of the Lord, gave of their financial means, offered the fruit of their lips. They were still the blood-bought body of Christ (Eph 1:22-23; Col 1:18; Acts 20:28). They still had the responsibility to bring the gospel to the world (Mark 16:15-16; Matt 28:18-20).

I Asked a Question

I asked a sister why they invited male preachers to teach and preach when they could minister the word to themselves. After all, Scripture shows that Christian women prophesied and prayed in New Testament times (1 Cor 11:5; Acts 22:8-9), taught the Word of God accurately (Acts 18:26), and brought people to salvation (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-15). Christian women also served one another in many diverse ways (1 Tim 5:2; Tit 2:3-5; Acts 9:36-43).

Too, Christian women were patrons, fellow workers for the truth, and “house church” hostesses (Rom 16:1-16), demonstrating that there is not a ministry our sisters cannot participate in (Acts 8). There are many sisters in the Lord mentioned throughout the New Testament as servants of God, evangelistic collaborators, and financiers. To say it in another way, Christian women can minister the gospel to the world without hindrance.

She responded, “Because the men are to lead prayers and preach God’s Word in the assembly.” She further explained, “We do have our own Bible study together as sisters during the week, but on Sundays we plan for visitors. We respect God’s plan for the worship assembly.”

This was a reference to 1 Tim 2:8-15, and the Apostle Paul’s instructions for prayers and teaching in the public assembly. In fact, the phrase, “in every place” (en panti topō 2:8) is a New Testament shorthand for “in every place of assembly.” In the assembly, Paul emphasizes “the preservation of male and female distinctions” by providing a “distinctive sphere” for Christian men and women to operate within.

In this setting, Christian “males” (Grk. andras) are to lead prayers on behalf of the body of Christ (2:8), provided they have a lifestyle consistent with godliness. Christian women are to “likewise” demonstrate godliness when assembled for prayer (2:9-10). Paul, then, adds the command that in the assembly Christian women “must learn in silence in full submission” (2:11). This does not suggest that she should check her brain in at the pew, nor is this a term that requires absolute silence. It simply explains her participation in the assembly as peaceful (2:2).

Paul goes on to explain, however, that a sister’s participation in the assembly is limited (2:12). He affirms, “I do not permit a woman” (1) “to teach” nor (2) “to have authority over a man.” Instead, she is “to be in silence” as an active learner (2:11). This instruction is explained (2:13 “for”) to be connected to the order of creation and the order of the fall along with its consequences (Gen 2-3), and a reminder of her demanding ministry towards her own godliness, her family and household (12-15).

Expanding the Role of Women

Although there is considerable literature centered on expanding the role of Christians sisters in the assembly beyond the above biblical dimensions, it was refreshing to see a group of sisters in Christ concerned with God’s guidelines for the worship assembly – even though they could have worshipped God among themselves.

It was a few years earlier that I had received a letter from a congregation where their elders unanimously offered “a position statement on the expanded role of women” in the congregation where they had oversight. They acknowledged that the “congregation’s thinking on this subject has been evolving for the past several years.” The letter outlines several roles where their sisters had evolved including teaching and co-teaching co-ed adult Bible classes, and Scripture reading in Sunday morning worship.

They further expressed their “intention to, in the near future, begin using women to serve the communion emblems, preside at the communion table and lead public prayers during the regular worship services.” They had not, at that moment, any intention to have “women as elders” and “women as pulpit ministers.”

One of the arguments used to sidestep the words of the Apostle Paul is that the text reads, “I do not permit”; hence, this verse does not represent “God’s law.” Far from it. The argument goes, that since he is “addressing a specific time and place with his statement” then Paul has no concern for providing “a law for all time.”

The question then becomes if the injunction by the Apostle is only valid when addressing the situation Paul is speaking to, and has no permanent place as God’s law for the church, then what about the other logical appendages to his argument? Is quietness a situational matter? Are the issues of holiness, modesty, self-control, learning in quietness merely situational and hence not of any permanent value because Paul writes, “I desire” (2:8) and “I do not permit” (2:12)? Or is it only the prohibitions which are situational (“I do not permit”)? If so, the positive statements in this text demand our sister’s presence in the assembly to be embraced with godliness, modesty and learning in quietness and submission. Or are these situational as well and therefore not God’s law?

The fact of the matter is that Paul ties this entire argument for the when the church assembles “in every place” to the events of creation, the order in which the first humans were made, and the admission of Eve being deceived. The weakness is not in Paul’s argumentation, nor in his use of “I.” The weakness lies with a hermeneutic which circumvents the natural reading of the passage.

Concluding Thoughts

My brief stint with the good sister at The Widows church of Christ was a powerful reminder that we can be faithful to God’s inspired texts regarding our gender roles in the assembly. My good sister showed me that faithfulness in the face of a difficult and complicated ministry was possible. Furthermore, they did not sell their building and go elsewhere; instead, they remained in the town, “because,” as she concluded, “the Lord’s body needs to be here.” God bless our sisters who are convicted to maintain their godly roles in the assembly and participate in so many amazing and unsung ministries.

Jovan Payes preaches for the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, Calif.

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